G8 leaders face moment of truth

After years of dithering, leaders of the world’s most powerful countries face a moment of truth on Wednesday when they open a three-day summit under mounting pressure to take concrete action against Africa’s pervasive poverty.

A spirited campaign by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to prick the conscience of the world on the plight of Africa comes to a head as he hosts a gathering of counterparts from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States.

A spokesperson for Blair said the Group of Eight (G8) during pre-summit consultations had come “close” to an agreement to double annual development aid to Africa to $50-billion by 2010.

That goal is the centrepiece in a sweeping “Marshall Plan” put forward by Blair and his Finance Minister Gordon Brown that also calls for debt cancellation and opening markets in industrialised nations to African agricultural goods.

The prime minister in the run-up to the Gleneagles summit has had to contend with deep-seated scepticism on the part of the Bush administration that more financial aid is what Africa most needs.

US President George Bush and other US conservatives insist that while poor nations may need help, they must first of all establish efficient and corruption-free institutions to ensure that funds from overseas are well-used.

“There is unfortunately not sufficient attention paid to the conditions in which development is delivered,” US Treasury Secretary John Snow argued last week. “Money alone is not the answer.”

Nonetheless, the White House has now said the US goal in Africa is to boost annual aid from its present level of $4,3-billion to $8,6-billion a year by 2010.

The US has also joined the rest of the G8 in agreeing in principle to write off $40-billion in debt owed by 18 poor countries—14 of them in Africa—to the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Japan, too, has said it will double its official development assistance to Africa to $1-billion by 2007.

But for many African leaders the most punishing constraints on the continent’s well-being are the trade barriers—notably agricultural subsidies—that rich nations have erected against African agricultural exports.

Meeting in Libya this week, the African Union called for “the abolition of subsidies that stand as an obstacle to trade” and for the adoption of a “calendar” for their removal.

Subsidies and other protectionist barriers in rich countries are estimated to cost sub-Saharan Africa $2-billion a year.

But it is on this very issue that the G8 is least likely to reach consensus here this week.

Within the European Union, Britain and France are bitterly at odds over the future of EU farm subsidies, with Blair pressing for their elimination and French President Jacques Chirac—whose country is their largest EU beneficiary—putting up stiff resistance.

The disagreement is mirrored at the international level, notably as the US likewise makes generous assistance available to its farmers.

While both the US and the EU have pledged to get rid of trade-distorting agricultural export subsidies, they remain far apart on how quickly they should be abolished.

If there is to be any substantial movement on the question, it will likely come within the current round of trade liberalisation talks at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), notably at a WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong in late December.

NGOs, meanwhile, voiced scepticism on Wednesday that the G8 summit will make a real difference and

predicted it would fail to respond to last weekend’s worldwide mobilisation.

An estimated one million people turned out for rock concerts in nine countries to press the G8 to “Make poverty history”, with a follow-up concert scheduled for Edinburgh later on Wednesday.

“The paltry deal on the table at Gleneagles is an insult to poor people the world over,” said John Hillary of War on Want.
“If this is the best they can come up with, the G8 clearly has nothing to offer the world’s poor.”

Meanwhile, protesters vowed on Wednesday to press ahead with a demonstration near the G8 summit site even after police ordered it cancelled.

The decision to cancel the march, expected to draw 5 000 or more people, followed violent clashes between police and protesters in Stirling in central Scotland, police said.—Sapa-AFP

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